If I told you what it takes
to reach the highest high,
You’d laugh and say ‘nothing’s that simple’
– The Who, “I’m Free,” 1969.
This is one of those little essays that comes so easily that it practically writes itself. Its inspiration is this post by the great Nick Carr:
“Sharing” is a nice word, but…there’s a deep current of cynicism running just under the surface of the sharing economy. The companies that operate the clearinghouses, and skim the lion’s share of the profits from the aggregate transactions, present a very different face to the folks driving the cars and renting out the rooms than they do to their investors and entrepreneurial peers.
Carr goes on to quote a rather scary-sounding book called The Culting of Brands: Turn Your Customers Into True Believers:
Cults will flatter you. They will make you feel special and individual in a way that you are unlikely to have felt before. They will celebrate the very things that make you feel different from everyone else; the members will get to know you deep down, and they will love you for what they find. And you will love them.
Is that good or bad? Carr also mentions “a vast and ready pool of workers…who don’t qualify for the extensive and expensive benefits and protections provided by law to regular employees.” Hmmm…sound familiar?
Carr is actually writing about Uber and taxi drivers, but the whole post might as well be about academia. Just last week, Daphne Koller told
the folks driving the cars and renting out the rooms listeners of that Slate podcast in a quote that I already transcribed:
What I expect will happen to these colleges is that the professors will rather move up the value chain so instead of standing there and delivering content they will use that material much as one uses a textbook today as the starting point for a discussion.
Moving up the value chain? Most of us don’t have that kind of freedom. Maybe it’s because we have classes that are too big for good discussions. Maybe it’s because we have far too much material to cover otherwise. More importantly, what if our employers don’t let us move up the value chain? Will Daphne Koller hire all those professors that MOOCs do displace at Coursera? Somehow I doubt it.
Ironically, the people who are most likely to have the freedom to replace their own content with other people’s MOOC lectures and not lose their jobs are the people at fancy schools who are, as a result of being at fancy schools, the least likely candidates to do so. As a result, Daphne Koller is left trying to flatter, coax and cajole faculty into using her products even though it’s obviously not in their best interest in the long run.
So the next time your local administrator or the well-meaning person over at your school’s IT office or any current or former member of the Stanford CS Department tells you that MOOCs are our friends, remember that nothing really is that simple.